Bye bye, influenza; hello fifth's disease

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2001

Alaska seems to have avoided the brunt of a major flu outbreak but a minor illness, called fifth's disease, is now showing its splotched face, medical professionals say.

A temporary shortage of influenza vaccine last fall had susceptible adults clamoring for the preventive shots when supplies finally arrived, but the flu never appeared in significant numbers.

"Reports in the state have been less than anticipated," said Jan Beauchamp, infection control nurse for employees at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

The same is true at the Juneau Public Health Center, said Nurse Manager Kathy Miller.

"Flu-wise, it has been a mild season, although people have had their share of viral illnesses," Miller said.

She said the illnesses most common in spring are chicken pox, or varicella, and fifth's disease, a mild illness often including rash and fever. Fifth's is known as "hand-slap disease" because the reddened cheeks of those suffering it look as if they had been slapped.

Glacier Pediatrics has seen three illnesses lately, said pediatric nurse practitioner Mary Ellen Arvold: Strep throat, vomiting and diarrhea, and a respiratory illness characterized by congestion and several days of high fever.

According to the state epidemiology office, Alaskans have experienced three types of influenza during the 2000-01 flu season, strains called A Sydney, A Beijing and B Yamanashi. The latest influenza bulletin, dated March 2, listed a total of 158 cases for the season, down from the previous year's 219 cases.

The first case showed up Oct. 14 and the peak came Dec. 9 with 20 cases. The last reported case came Feb. 24.

About half of the cases occurred in the Anchorage area where about half of the state's population resides. In Southeast Alaska, there were seven cases recorded on official reports.

"The flu season starts in June of one year and goes to spring of the next," said Don Ritter of the state virology lab in Fairbanks.

The A Sydney strain, the most common, changed its genetic code at one point. That can result in a strain with more serious symptoms, but that didn't occur this season, Ritter said.

Fifth's disease, discovered in 1974, is transmitted by respiratory secretions. It is common in school-age children, but can occur in all ages. It is caused by human parvo virus B-19 and can cause miscarriages in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

"It peaks in April and May and often continues until school lets out," Ritter said.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at:

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